Libardo Cardenas is fascinated by his new little car. Not about its styling or performance, but about the advanced technology that allows his Honda Insight to achieve 60-70miles per gallon with ultralow exhaust emissions.

And all the while, he's having a ball driving it. The performance is sporty and its distinctive looks make him the center of attention wherever he goes. And he enjoys the video-game aspect of trying to best his top gas mileage.

"There is communication between the car and the driver," said Cardenas, a Phoenix businessman. "It becomes a challenge to make it more efficient."

The Insight is the first hybrid-powered car sold commercially in the United States. It's an aerodynamic two-seater powered by a pipsqueak three-cylinder engine that, coupled with a small electric motor, provides the performance and flexibility of a conventional gas engine twice its size. The electric motor works kind of like a turbocharger, supplying an extra boost only when you need it.

Unlike pure electric cars, such as General Motors' EV1, the Insight never has to be plugged in for a recharge or be saddled with only limited driving range. It gets filled up at the gas pump like any regular car, only its 10.6-gallon tank has the potential to go for more than 700 miles.

With the recent spike in gasoline prices, people once again are talking about miles per gallon. But the Insight is so much more than an economy car. It's a peek at a new technology that could save fuel, help clear our air and allow drivers to enjoy a reasonable amount of performance.

"This is the immediate future of cars," said Cardenas, a mechanical engineer.

That's true. Already Honda is planning to put its new technology into mainstream cars such as the Accord. Toyota has a hybrid on the ground in Japan, where sales are brisk, and DaimlerChrysler is experimenting with a hybridized Dodge Durango sport-utility vehicle.

Ford and General Motors will be showing hybrid cars at upcoming auto shows, and it's just a matter of time before this type powertrain will be a common choice in showrooms.

Insight recently received a high award from the top environmental group, the Sierra Club. On the other end, Budget has announced it will offer Insights as rental vehicles.

The Insight is a feast of brilliant engineering, from its 1-liter engine -- boasting Honda's VTEC variable valve timing and a unique exhaust manifold cast into the cylinder head -- to the slim electric motor that's slipped in between the engine and the five-speed transmission, and the compact electronic controller that brings it all together.

Honda calls it the Integrated Motor Assist system.

In a weeklong test of the Insight, I found it did everything pretty much as well as a "normal" car, only with much better fuel mileage. Acceleration is brisk, handling is excellent, and overall, it feels like a proper little sport coupe.

When Insight i s stopped in neutral, the engine turns itself off, rumbling quickly back to life when you shift into gear. That saves gas and eliminates pollutants emitted while idling.

When accelerating, the electric motor kicks in to help the puny three-cylinder pull Insight quickly up to speed, providing lots of torque and a satisfying amount of power. At cruising range, the electric motor cuts out and the gas motor pulls you along, adding power if you have to speed up or climb a hill.

Under deceleration, the motor serves as generator to recharge the 144 nickel-metal hydride batteries, about the size of D-cells, all packed under the rear deck of the little hatchback.

A digital readout in the center of the dashboard shows immediate gas mileage, average, whether the electric-motor system is assisting or recharging. It is fun to work these gauges and see how well you can do.

The Insight is a sharp little car in many ways, though somewhat compromised by its high-ga s-milea ge mission.

Made from aluminum and other lightweight materials, the Insight weighs less than 1,900 pounds. Great for handling and gas mileage, not so great in terms of road-noise insulation and freeway driving in heavy, fast traffic, where truck vacuum tends to buffet the little car.

Otherwise, the Insight drives nicely on the freeway, with lots of power and a fairly solid ride, zipping along on low-resistance tires with a body designed to slice efficiently through the air.

Though only a two-seater, which will limit sales, Insight's interior is surprisingly roomy. The interior styling is spartan but interestingly modern. The test car had a full complement of equipment, such as power windows and door locks, and an effective climate-control system.

Although the acceleration is brisk, especially at freeway speeds, you pay a price in mileage if you're hard on the gas pedal. To get the best mileage requires a light foot and early upshifts.

As a public-education vehicle as well as a technology test bed, the Insight is a tremendous success. It proves that a power system that goes beyond internal combustion is not only possible but viable right now. And people love its quirky looks.

The future may hold fuel cells and hydrogen power, but for today, hybrid power is a real-world solution.

Cardenas is one of the first people in the Valley to buy an Insight, picking it up at Honda Cars of Mesa. Another is Lance Kaufman, who bought at Showcase Honda.

"It's a fun car to drive, very easy to drive," Kaufman said. "There is the challenge, of course. The new game is trying to get the best mileage."